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Looking Back At Watch Dogs 10 Years Later

While the Grand Theft Auto franchise has visited and revisited cities from New York, Miami, and Los Angeles while renaming them along the way (Liberty City, Vice City, and Los Santos respectively), what if a city like Chicago were to be featured in the series in some way? In this case you would get Watch Dogs, specifically the first game in the Ubisoft franchise.

The Watch Dogs series since the original has went on to spawn a sequel that shifted from the Windy City to the San Francisco Bay area, as well as a third installment (Watch Dogs: Legion) set across the pond in London. However, a little over 10 years after the franchise’s late May 2014 launch, the series seems to be either dead or in limbo of sorts, with a possible movie adaptation in the works (via Insider Gaming). Until official word gets out on whether or not Ubisoft continues or reboots the franchise, as well as if the Watch Dogs movie gets off the ground, let’s take a look back at how Watch Dogs began (specifically the first installment).

E3 2012

Although work on Watch Dogs began all the way back in 2009 (according to Rolling Stone) the game did not get officially showcased until the ultimate gaming expo of the summer: E3 2012. Little did the world know of what would become of the expo in 10 something years. Needless to say though, 2012 was still during a time when the expo was alive and kicking.

The gameplay demo for Watch Dogs started off with the game’s protagonist Aiden Pierce walking into a press event held in Chicago, on the lookout for a particular target of interest. After talking with a presumed partner/associate of his, viewers are treated to teases of the game yet to come. The game’s signature electronics-hacking mechanic is featured as Aiden taps and listens in to phone conversations. Further hacking is demonstrated through tampering with traffic lights, causing a large car accident at a road intersection.

To top the gameplay demo off, it wraps up with some gunplay in the middle of the street, filled with some slow motion shootouts in rainy weather and vaulting behind vehicles. After stealing a car and evading the Chicago Police, the end of the demo reveals the Watch Dogs logo along with the tagline “everything is connected… connection is power”. From that point onwards Ubisoft would gradually build up hype for the then new IP. Just keep this gameplay demo in mind, particularly with the graphics quality including lighting/shadows and weather effects.

A Delayed Launch… With Some Controversies

Fast Forward to 2013, Watch Dogs was intended to release in November of that year and was going to be among the first games of the then brand new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Instead, Ubisoft delayed Watch Dogs to May 27, 2014 (according to GameSpot). Additionally, a Wii U port was also released much later in November 18, 2014 in North America and three days later in Europe, as reported by Engadget.

When Watch Dogs ultimately released, it was met with fairly positive reviews overall (look back at our review). On the other hand, gamers found a number of reasons to feel let down by the hype since the E3 2012 gameplay demo. PC players found that their port of the game was released horribly unoptimized. If this wasn’t enough, hopefully you kept the above E3 2012 gameplay demo in mind. The reason: no matter if gamers were playing the 8th gen console ports or the PC port, the final product was revealed to not look like how the game was revealed in that 2012 demo. In other words… Ubisoft looked like they may have downgraded the graphics and lighting quality in the final release of the game compared to the 2012 demo. This was so much so that PC mods were created by the community to bring the game much closer to the 2012 demo level of visual fidelity (via PC Gamer).

And to top the release off is a personal memory of looking up the game around the time of release. At the time, the YouTube channel ReviewTechUSA uploaded a video of when political commentator Glenn Beck added fuel to the “video games cause violence/trains gamers to commit real life crime” fire by claiming (among a few examples) Watch Dog’s electronics-hacking gameplay actually trains gamers to perform real life hacking. Beck claimed that the game allowed players to be able to hack into real electronics such as iPads and listen in on people’s private conversations.

Oh boy was my younger self dumbstruck that someone could spew out such ignorant nonsense. Sadly though, there’s bound to be the older, non-gaming crowd throughout the world who’d believe such misinformation. Here’s some tips for that crowd: In life, it takes more than just tapping or holding down the Square button to steal money from an ATM or switch the traffic light from red light to green light. You have to know computer programming and how to get past any electronics security in order to do any type of hacking as incognito as possible without getting caught. No game is going to teach gamers that right off the bat and do so in real life. Hacking in a video game won’t transfer to real world cyber crime… as if it’s the Monstars who never played a sport in their lives, playing like seasoned NBA veterans by touching the basketball that Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley dribbled and shot with.

Chicago Skyline Watch Dogs. Image credit to MikeyTsunami via Reddit

Finally Playing In 2015

Now let’s go beyond the rant that my younger self from 10 years ago had. When Watch dogs was new, one simple reason drew me to the game: it was set in Chicago, and I’m originally from the real Windy City (albeit, I didn’t grow up there). However, I didn’t have a PS4 yet for the console’s first few years, and having graduated in 2015, I got a laptop as a present. I also had a quick first single playthrough of Watch Dogs on my neighbor’s PS4. I really didn’t do much that time other than driving through video game Chicago and failing experiments to block the streets with the car(s) I was driving in game.

Come Spring/Summer 2015, I moved back to Chicago to start my college life there. Before the new school year started, I finally got my own copy of Watch Dogs. I don’t remember anymore exactly how I got my copy… but it was a physical PC copy of the game that I installed on my laptop one night, as I didn’t have enough money for a digital copy from the Ubisoft Uplay store (which has since been renamed Ubisoft Connect). It was around that time I also found out how to download PC drivers so that I can use my PS3 controller to play the PC port of Watch Dogs in place of an actual Xbox 360 controller for PC.

The gist of the game’s story is that Aiden fights off against Chicago’s various criminal orgs as he searches for the killer who ordered a hit on him many years ago… the same attempt on his life that unintentionally claimed the life of his niece. For the first few months or so of playing Watch Dogs, the game was really fun to play. This really was my GTA V, though unlike GTA, recreating real life US cities with high accuracy, the Chicagoan in me could easily point out the various easy-to-spot changes that Ubisoft made that, in my opinion, makes a world famous city look like a generic big American city.

Here are several examples:

  • The iconic Chicago Theater marquee has been changed to Ambrose Theater. Honestly, not too much of a bad change
  • Same with the Magnificent Mile being renamed to the Mad Mile. Even Trump Tower got renamed to the Triomphe Tower for the game
  • While the Sears Tower (real lifelong Chicagoans don’t call it Willis) looks correct in certain game promotions and within the in-game popup map, viewing it from the street has one of the tubes extend higher than in real life, right up to the head of the building
  • The real Chicago has lake Michigan to the east and the Chicago river flowing west and south into the city (as Chicago is famous for the flow of the river being reversed). Watch Dogs Chicago has much more water even to the northern end of downtown, making the city look like an island to an extent.
  • The real 311 S. Wacker Drive, known for its lantern roof, looks like a deformed dwarf in game
  • (Straight from my memory) Triomphe is next to the game’s recreation of the Wrigley Building, while the real buildings are more spaced out
  • The game’s recreation of the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (better known by locals as “The Bean”) looks like a flattened bean with a hole cut out on top
Watch Dogs Chicago map. Image credit to Watch Dogs Wiki

Despite all these changes, there’s still enough resemblance to the real Windy City that’ll let players know Watch Dog’s Chicago is based on a real American city. Other than the game’s fictionalized version of Chicago, there was a lot of fun to have had in terms of the combat. It felt so satisfying to vault behind vehicles and engage in shootouts in the middle of the streets and expressways, switching between various weapons. The one big downside personally, is wishing that you could roll while running. Oh, how I wish rolling was a thing in Watch Dogs. There have been countless times where I kept dying since I could only run away from gun fire while my health was low and hoping that I don’t get shot any further.

Then there’s Aiden, his sister Nicole, and nephew Jackson. Nicole Pierce looked generic to me, as if the character designers for the game just decided to make a female character by throwing in a blonde pony tail and call her the main character’s sister. Not much can be said about Jackson, as he deals with the loss of his sister, in part, by not talking to anyone outside of his mother. For Aiden, the way he often spoke with a grouchy voice (often during in-game narration/monologues) kept reminding me of Miles Matheson from the short-lived 2012 TV show “Revolution.”

An Eventual Burn Out

Alas, my time playing Watch Dogs had to eventually come to an end. Around Fall or Winter 2015 my interest in playing the game waned. I don’t remember anymore how long it took for me to complete the story… but there came a time where I completed just about all the side quests, unlocked all the skills, weapons, and areas and got bored with the game. yes there was the multiplayer mode to Watch Dogs, but personally I’m much more of an offline/single player type of gamer rather than one that plays a whole lot of multiplayer. Although towards the beginning of the game’s story integrated a bit of the multiplayer, I completely opt out of that part of the game. I’d rather play the story and roam around video game Chicago while engaging in combat here and there against both the in-game enemies and the CPD of a highly integrated city.

Call it being burned out from the game that took place in my hometown. I eventually gave away my physical copy of the game somewhere and never looked back, not even getting back into the franchise when the eventual sequel games were released. The Watch Dogs burn out got to the point where even buying GTA V for PC via the 2016 Steam Summer Sale kept giving me Watch Dogs flashbacks that prevented me from getting into that game just for exploration and using PC mods.

Speaking of PC mods, one of the first times that I can recall of trying out PC mods is downloading some kind of graphics mod to improve the graphics quality of the game. My laptop I was playing Watch Dogs on wasn’t very powerful as it could only run the smoothest FPS by outputting at Medium settings in 720p. The mod must have been some kind of reshade mod that altered the lighting quality. Not to mention, my laptop may have been a mid-range laptop for the early to mid 2010s, having a 4th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU and integrated Intel HD Graphics + Nvidia GTX 740M GPU.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Watch Dogs may be the one game that most defined my Spring/Summer of 2015 as well as my first semester of college. Although nine to 10 years have passed and I still don’t have any interested in revisiting the franchise, let alone the first game, it would be a curious thought if I were to ever repurchase Watch Dogs via Steam (if not Ubisoft Connect) and see if the game is still like I remember it. Perhaps with my newer prebuilt gaming desktop PC I now have since 2021 that has a GTX 1650 Super + a 10th Gen Intel Core i5, I could possibly run Watch Dogs (again, if I were to ever repurchase the game) in 1080p at High to Ultra settings.

Now I wonder… what would a remaster of Watch Dogs be like on PS5? How much better would the game look with even newer gaming hardware, or if Ubisoft would downgrade the graphics yet again? Maybe it’s for the best if a Watch Dogs or GTA-caliber game doesn’t explore Chicago as a setting unless it becomes what Watch Dogs should’ve been, based on that infamous 2012 E3 reveal.

What did you think about Watch Dogs ten years ago? Any memories of being pulled into the hype or being disappointed by the game’s release? Let us know below!

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